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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

Before You Head to the Airport

After you've made your reservations, it's time to start preparing for the flight itself. What used to be a quick and easy check-in procedure has evolved into a long and involved trial; fortunately, there are some things you can do to minimize the inevitable annoyances of the post-9/11 era airport check-in.

Packing and Dressing for Airline Security

The first step in minimizing check-in hassle is knowing how to pack. Not in terms of cramming as much stuff as possible into a smallish bag, but rather in managing your possessions to best navigate the airport's multiple security checkpoints.

You goals for packing—and dressing—for airline security are to get through the security checkpoints as quickly as possible. You do this by avoiding having your baggage and body searched, and avoiding having your possessions confiscated or disturbed.

In Appendix A you'll find the Travel Security Administration's list of items permitted and prohibited in air travel. Common sense would dictate that items such as weapons, explosives, and incendiaries are prohibited in as carry-on luggage. However, there are seemingly harmless item considered by the TSA as "dual use" items—that is, items that could be used as weapons, such as Swiss Army knives, metal scissors, strike-anywhere matches, and straight shaving razors. You can pack these items in your checked baggage, but not in your carry-on.

If you have concerns about an item, your best bet is to place it in your checked baggage or get authorization from the airline. If the item is confiscated at the security checkpoint, you won't get it back—and you could be criminally and/or civilly prosecuted. In some airports, Paradies Shops and the TSA are offering a shipping service to travelers who may find themselves with a banned item such as a pocket knife. Just step out of line and bring your item to a pre-security store. They will mail your item to you for $5. You also get a receipt that lets you return to the front of the line.

Tips for Carry-On Baggage

Here are some tips on what you should and shouldn't pack in your carry-on bags:

  • Remove all prohibited items—such as pocket knives, scissors, and tools—from your carry-on baggage.

  • Screen your bags before you travel; you may have forgotten a pocket knife or similar item stuck in the back flap six months ago.

  • Do not carry-on wrapped gifts; the security screeners will have to unwrap them to examine them.

  • Bring the right size carry-on bag. The FAA mandates that passengers are restricted to one item of carry-on baggage that does not exceed 10x16x24 inches (45 linear inches), plus one smaller personal-type item (for example, purse, briefcase, laptop computer case). Many airlines add a weight limit of 45 pounds.

Tips for Dressing for a Date with a Metal Detector

For the most part, items with a small amount of metal—such as rings and bras—will not set off the X-ray machine. However, some machines are more sensitive than others. Consult the following tips to make sure that you pass through without setting off the alarm.

  • Remove all jewelry and barrettes.

  • Don't wear shoes with steel tips, heels, or shanks.

  • Leave metal buttons, snaps, studs, and underwire bras at home.

  • Choose watches and belt buckles with a minimal amount of metal.

  • Remove any questionable items before you hit the metal detector, and place them in your carry-on luggage.

Tips for Packing Checked Baggage

As of January 1, 2003, the TSA began screening 100% of checked baggage at all 429 commercial airports across the United States. Most bags are inspected by machine, although any bag many be chosen for hand inspection.

Keep these tips in mind when packing your big bags:

  • Don't lock your bag.

  • Avoid creating dense areas in your baggage.

  • Don't pack food and beverages inside a checked bag.

  • Spread books out; don't stack them.

  • Pack in a way that a busy screener can close your bag easily. (That also means that you shouldn't overstuff your bag; the screener has to get it closed again after the manual check is completed.)

  • Don't pack what you don't want seen.

  • If you don't want it touched, put it in a plastic bag.

  • Don't pack wrapped gifts; the screeners will just unwrap them for you.

  • Pack shoes, boots, sneakers, and other footwear on top of other contents in your luggage.

Other Packing Tips

More tips for efficient packing:

  • X-rays from checked baggage airport scanners will damage unprocessed film. Do not put single-use cameras, rolls of film, or cameras with film still in them in your checked baggage. Conversely, digital camera images or processed film will not be damaged by checked baggage scanners.

  • The X-ray equipment used to inspect carry-on baggage will not damage film—so you should carry on all your film. However, if you are going to travel through more than five security checkpoints in a row, request a hand search; the cumulative effect of these low-level x-rays will damage your film. The FAA allows for hand search of photographic film and equipment.

  • The Department of Transportation limits liability claims to $2,500 per passenger (maximum) for lost or damaged checked baggage. This does not include jewelry, cash, and equipment.

  • It is not a good idea to pack your laptop in your checked bags—and certain airlines restrict your doing so. Always carry on your laptop and PDA devices.

  • Less is better. If you bring too many bags or overweight/size bags, you could be hit with steep fees. Most problematic are shoes; try to bring one pair that can multitask.

Checking Your Flight Status

It's always good to know if your flight will be leaving or arriving late—or even early. Unfortunately, there are no hard-and-fast rules as to how far in advance you should check this information. Fortunately, there are several Internet-based options for checking the status of a flight.

Arrival and departure status is typically available at the airline's Web site, the airport's Web site, and the online travel sites (Expedia, Travelocity, and so on). Each Web site has different features and informational elements; some even offer gate location and wireless and email flight status notification.

The following table lists some of the less-obvious Web sites that provide flight status information.

Web Site



This site shows real-time airport status and lets you know if your airport (not specific flights) is experiencing delay.


This site tells you exactly when a specific flight is expected to depart (or has departed), as well as the flight's estimated arrival, based on its real-time status. Even better, this site provides a graphical depiction of the plane's location in the air.


This site tells you exactly when a specific flight is expected to depart (or has departed), as well as its estimated arrival based on its real-time status.


This site tells you the specifics of a flight's progress. (For example, if it left from a connecting city.) Because it lets you search by airport, if you are short on some key information (such as the airline or flight number), you can still find the flight.

If you can't get online, your best bet is to call your airline or travel agent and have them check for you.

Having determined that your flight is delayed, now what do you do? In particular, do you still need to be at the gate before the original scheduled departure time? This is a gray area, and policies vary depending on the circumstances of the delay and the individual airline; call your airline for specific instructions.

Documentation for Domestic Travel

The days of dashing through the security checkpoint and getting your boarding pass at the gate are numbered. In an effort to consolidate passenger screening at the security checkpoints, the TSA now requires passengers to present a boarding pass and photo identification at most airports' security checkpoints. Tickets and ticket confirmations (such as a travel agent or airline itineraries) will no longer be accepted at these checkpoints.

The TSA's Web site (http://www.tsa.gov) provides an updated list of which airports require boarding passes at the gate. Just go to the site's Travelers and Consumers section, select Security Procedures, and then select Access Requirements.

How and Where to Get Your Boarding Pass

Although all these security-related changes might seem daunting, the good news is that airlines have instituted new services that offer more and speedier options for obtaining your boarding pass.

Depending on the airport and airline, you may be able to obtain your boarding pass at any of these locations:

  • Airport ticket counter

  • Curbside baggage check-in

  • Airport self-service check-in kiosk

  • Over the Internet

Airport Ticket Counter

One thing hasn't changed; you can still get your boarding pass at the airport ticket counter. It's also possible that you won't have to suffer through a long line because most major airlines offer expedited counter service for elite frequent flyer program members and for first and business class travelers.

Curbside Baggage Check-In

Here's a secret that most hardened business travelers know—even with today's heightened security procedures, you can still check your baggage and receive your boarding pass at curbside check-in. Even though it will cost you a small gratuity, this is often the best way to bypass long lines at the ticket counter.

Although most airlines offer curbside check-in at major airports, don't count on this service at smaller airports and with smaller airlines. In addition, government security warnings sometimes force larger airports to limit curbside check-in service. Check with your airline to see whether curbside check-in is available.

Airport Self-Service Check-In

This is a new type of check-in, typically available for e-ticket passengers on domestic flights. You will find these self-service kiosks near the ticket counters of most major airlines. The kiosks are touch-screen terminals that display fairly straightforward instructions. (And there's usually a gate agent standing by if you have questions or problems.)

To use a self-service check-in terminal, you need a major credit card or frequent flyer card for identification purposes. After you use your card to log in, you can typically obtain boarding passes and seat assignments, check baggage, change flights or standby status, find out about delays or cancellations, and request upgrades. US Airways even allows you to purchase one-way same-day tickets at its kiosks.

Airlines are rapidly rolling out this self-service check-in at most major airports, but check your airline's Web site to see whether it is available at your airport. (At time of publication, Spirit and Frontier were the only airlines that did not offer this service.)

Online Check-in

If you have an e-ticket, are traveling within the United States, and don't need to check baggage, you can print your boarding pass and check in from the comfort of your own home—using your computer and the airline's Web site. This new service lets you print your boarding pass at home or at the office, bring it to the airport, and then head directly to the security checkpoint—no stop at the ticket counter required. To use this service, most airlines require you to be a member of their frequent flyer program, so you should have your frequent flyer number and password or PIN handy when you go online.

The time period in which you can print your boarding pass varies by airline, but most allow you to check-in 1 to 24 hours prior to your scheduled departure. (At time of publication, JetBlue and Spirit did not offer online check-in.)

A Note on E-Tickets

In case you haven't noticed, paper tickets are going the way of the buggy whip. Issuing paper tickets is expensive for airlines, so they're encouraging the use of electronic tickets (e-tickets) instead. You'll find all sorts of incentives to use e-tickets, as well as disincentives to use paper tickets.

Most airlines now charge—considerably—to print a paper ticket. These fees typically run in the $20 to $25 range, although American Airlines now charges $50 for the privilege of using an old-fashioned paper ticket. For the traveler, the primary advantage of paper tickets has been that they can be redeemed at other airlines' counters, whereas e-tickets needed to be converted into paper documents at the ticket counter. (This is a major hassle if you are scrambling to catch a flight.) Many airlines have addressed this concern by signing e-ticket "interlining" agreements to recognize each other's e-tickets. (For example, American has such deals with 10 other airlines.)

Timing Your Arrival: The Art of Arriving with 5 Minutes to Spare

Most business travelers want to minimize the amount of time they spend at the airport. Needless to say, time is precious; it can be irritating to arrive 1 1/2 hours prior to departure and then find yourself cruising to the gate in just 15 minutes. A little information can be helpful to refine your waiting time—without risking a missed flight.

Getting to the Airport

If you are in a city you don't know well, check with a local resident or your cab or car service about when to expect rush hour traffic and how it will affect your travel time. (And don't presume that you know when rush hour begins and ends; rush hours vary by city.) See Part 2, "City Guide," of this book for estimated travel times to and from the airport for major business centers, as well as typical rush hour periods and local resources for traffic information. You can also go online to http://www.traffic.com, which provides real-time traffic information for 14 U.S. cities.

Getting to Your Terminal

So you've made it through the highway traffic; don't assume that you're home free. In some airports the traffic jams around the terminals are worse than on the highways—particularly during the heavy traffic periods or at airports under construction.

The location of your terminal relative to the airport entrance can also add precious minutes to your commute. For example, if you are flying out of LAX during peak travel periods (6:30 a.m.-9 a.m., 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 8 p.m.–11 p.m.) or during major holidays, it can take 10 to 20 minutes to drive from the airport entrance to the farthest terminal (terminal 7, which hosts flights from United and Continental).

If you're returning a rental car, take into consideration the location of your rental company drop-off location, whether you can walk or need to take a shuttle to the terminal, and whether the rental car company provides express return service.

It's another issue if you're driving yourself to the airport and need a place to park. If you're a local you probably have a good idea of where to park and know whether you should opt for short-term, long-term, park-and-ride, or economy lots. Check out the airport's Web site to find a map of parking locations and list of rates. Some airport Web sites provide parking availability information, which can save you time trolling for spots.

Also check the airport's Web site for information about parking lots that are closed for security reasons, and to see whether the airport has instituted mandatory vehicle inspection (and how much time you can expect this to take). For example, Logan Airport's Web site (http://www.massport.com) provides up-to-date parking conditions and tells you which garages require vehicle inspection.

Getting Your Boarding Pass and Checking In

Now you're inside the terminal. This is when the clock starts ticking for the notorious "recommended arrival time," which is meant to encourage you to leave enough time to get through check-in and security and to your gate prior to the required minimum gate check-in time. Most airlines and airports will tell you to arrive 1 hour prior to departure for domestic flights, or 1 1/2 hours prior if you're checking baggage. If you are traveling during "peak travel" times, you may be told to arrive 1 1/2 to 2 hours prior to departure. (Peak travel times are generally Sunday and Friday afternoons and Monday mornings.)

If you are checking bags, some airlines at certain airports require a minimum baggage check-in time to guarantee that your bags will make it on the flight. For example, in Phoenix you need to check bags 30 minutes prior to departure. American Airlines requires that you check your bags at least 45 minutes before departure if you are leaving from the Denver, New York Kennedy, Las Vegas, and Miami airports. Delta requires 45 minutes for Las Vegas and Denver.

Alaska, America West, Continental, Delta, Horizon, JetBlue, Midwest, and US Airways all have helpful Web sites that list the recommended arrival time by airport. Some airlines also offer this information for peak and nonpeak periods. Remember, recommended arrival time is specific to a given airline at a given airport; for example, recommended arrival time for a Delta flight out of Atlanta may be different than for a Continental flight.

Getting Through Security

The TSA has a stated goal of no more than a 10-minute wait time at any of its security checkpoints. The good news is, they're doing a good job of achieving this goal; the days of interminable security lines are, for the most part, long past.

If you're concerned about long security lines, you may find wait time information on the airport's Web site. For example, the Web site for Atlanta's Hartsfield airport provides real-time updates on security line wait times.

Some airlines at some airports provide expedited security lanes for certain classes of passengers. For example, AirTran, American, Delta, and US Airways expedite security checks for elite members of their frequent flyer programs and for passengers flying first or business class. See each airline's Web site for a list of specific locations.

Getting to the Gate

If you think you might want to cut it close, take a look at the airport terminal map (available online at most airport Web sites) and plot your route appropriately. For the airports covered in this book, we have provided information on transportation options and walking times. For example, Atlanta's Hartsfield airport has one central security checkpoint area in the main terminal. If your flight is on Northwest Airlines out of terminal D, you have at most a 2-minute wait for the train and a 5-minute ride (or 15 to 20 minute walk). From there, you'll need only a few extra minutes to get to your gate.

Dealing with Minimum Gate Arrival Time

Just because you arrive at the gate with minutes to spare doesn't mean that all is well. You may have missed the minimum gate check-in time required by the airlines—which means you may have lost your seat assignment, or even your seat. (No flight for you!) Although it is rare to find an airline enforcing these requirements.

To retain your preassigned seat assignment, your right to compensation in the case of involuntary denied boarding, and your reservation, airlines require that you check in and be present at the gate by a stated minimum time. This minimum gate arrival time (for domestic flights) ranges from 10 to 30 minutes, with most airlines falling into the 15 to 20 minute range. For example, American West wants you there 20 minutes early, whereas American states a 30-minute minimum.

The problem with determining when you need to check in is that the airlines make this information hard to find. You'll need to examine the fine print on your ticket jacket, or maybe even call the airlines and ask.

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